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Post-election forum examines media’s campaign coverage

Dan Kennedy kicked off a post-election forum on Wednesday afternoon at Northeastern University by criticizing broadcast media for giving Donald Trump billions of dollars in free advertising. But he stopped short of attributing the election results to the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the businessman turned president-elect.

“It was amazing that Trump was allowed to call into shows and take over the airwaves in ways that other candidates weren’t,” said Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism and a nationally known media commentator. “But,” he later added, “I think we’re expecting too much of journalism to think we would have had a better outcome if the media had done a better job.”

Kennedy was addressing approximately 100 Northeastern students, faculty, and staff who had convened in Shillman Hall to reflect on the election results. On Tuesday night, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in one of the most stunning upsets in political history, shocking the entire world while causing the global financial markets to plunge.

The School of Journalism hosted the hourlong event, titled “The Day After: Making Sense of the Election and What Lies Ahead.” Kennedy moderated the discussion in conjunction with Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism, and Dina Kraft, coordinator of the Media Innovation program.

Discussion topics ranged from the credibility of the nation’s leading pollsters to the freedom of the press under a Trump administration, but talk frequently returned to the media’s coverage of what Politico called “the dirt­iest pres­i­den­tial race since ’72.”

“It was amazing that Trump was allowed to call into news shows and take over the airwaves in ways that other candidates weren’t.”
— Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism

Dozens of students expressed their opinions throughout the event, covering everything from media bias to Bernie Sanders. “Media outlets started becoming openly biased because there was a sense that this election was different,” one student said. “Trump was different, and media outlets felt the need to choose a side.”

Another student blamed the media for Sanders’ defeat in the primary election, saying that journalists and political pundits wrote him off despite his loyal following of young voters. “The media painted him as if he didn’t have a chance,” he said. “If he had been given a bit more coverage, maybe he would have had a chance.”

A third student noted that Trump didn’t need the media’s approval to win the election. As she put it, “Trump won when the majority of mainstream media backed Clinton. This shows that it’s the people who still have the power in this country.”

Kaufman echoed Kennedy, saying that “the media did not elect Donald Trump.” To underscore his opinion, he noted that the vast majority of major daily newspapers endorsed Clinton and pointed to the in-depth coverage of Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood tape.

“If you were channel-flipping yesterday, the look of shock on nearly every anchor or pundit was pretty obvious,” he said. “We want to be careful,” he added. “All the stories about Trump were out there.” Noted Kraft: “There was some really phenomenal journalism out there. People knew about Trump’s past sexual predatory nature and his business dealings.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Kaufman asked colleague Laurel Leff whether Trump would try to loosen up libel laws in an effort for plaintiffs to more easily win lawsuits against newspapers that print unfavorable stories about them. Leff, associate professor of journalism, who teaches a course called “Law of the Press,” wasn’t as concerned about Trump’s chances of changing libel laws as she was about his propensity for intimidating the media on a regular basis. “His basic attitude is, ‘I get to decide what’s truthful or not,’” Leff explained. “His attitude seems to be that [the media] doesn’t get to do their thing because they lie.”